Until the other day, I saw none of their faces. I avoided all links and news stories where the tiny victims of the Newtown massacre were shown and identified. I was not able to see them while the horror of the numbers sank in and details surfaced. I could not do it. I needed a few days of cowardice, of avoidance, a few days to steel myself before giving literal face to the staggering statistics, where the number of dead seemed impossible when paired with ages and grade levels. Too many, too young, too soon.
But in front of me, suddenly, on the treadmill, of all places, there they were. Eye level. Tiny faces, almost life-sized on the TV monitor, smiling, beautiful, gone. It was The Katie Couric Show, covering the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
As I ran in place, their pictures faded in and out, perfect and imperfectly perfect little faces, some still with their baby teeth. There are no words.
Katie was interviewing some of the family members. They all showed remarkable poise, exceptional grace in the face of such loss. I'm sure, just days after, there is still shock to block the horror and buffer the pain, to fill the void that will most certainly grow, not diminish, in the time ahead.
They told of morning routines, of holding tiny hands on the way to the school bus. One boy, his parents slowly and proudly recounted, stopping to blink back tears and clear a breaking voice, had already shown an ability to connect with the disabled. They also told of his never wanting to see anyone eat their lunch by themselves. They spoke clearly, elegantly, about the little losses leaving such terrible voids, in a home, at a breakfast table, in the world. Unspeakable, unfathomable loss.
This is our loss, too.
What future is now gone, with those squeezes of a trigger, as clip after clip was emptied? What stories will never be lived or told, the cover slammed shut so violently, with pages and pages yet to be written? What cure, what idea, what art, what revelation won't happen because of that deadly gunfire?
Duty and Debt
So in their absence, we have some new duties.
We have a duty to fill those voids, to work harder to make breakthroughs. To facilitate research, to fund arts, to lend a hand or a dollar. It's now our duty to replace the lights extinguished in those classrooms and halls with our own light. With charitable acts and by living lives that honor those who have no such luxury now. With choices that favor kindness, beauty. Choices that stave off anger and hunger, choices that steal the voice from hate.
We have a duty to make the world as kind as a child deserves.
We have a duty to be civil, to adopt all the things we learn, then forget, in the early years of grade school. Play. Share. Love. Create. Laugh. Yes, even now, even laugh.
We have the duty to evaluate what "the right to bear arms" should mean, in the over two centuries since our forefathers penned those words with a quill pen, on the edge of a wilderness and to block their fledgling nation from a tyrannical country they fought to be free of, when a barrel-loaded musket was the weapon of choice and no video game was giving our kids bonus points for killing.
We have a duty to demand of our president-reelect and elected officials that something change. Public tears, flags at half-mast and formal proclamations of condolence are no longer good enough. They never should have been without something next. A plan. A solution. A dialogue. A stand against the bullies that are the NRA.
These are our duties to the lost of Sandy Hook. This is our national debt to repay.
A Show of Hands on the Right to Bear Arms
If those beholden to the NRA want guns without restriction, I say put it to a vote. If my right as a gay man to marry is decided by my neighbors, if states allow their populace to attempt to amend state constitutions to block marriage equality, and if LGBT employment protections are decided state by state without federal-level protection, let's see a show of hands for how we feel as a nation on the right to bear arms. Fair is fair, right?
If our president-reelect won't speak up on the federal level about marriage bans and employment discrimination, let's make the issue of gun ownership a state-level vote, too. But no, they'll argue, you'll just cross a border and the laws will change. You mean like how a New York marriage license isn't honored after a PATH ride to New Jersey? Funny how that argument works.
If conservatives protect gun ownership under the fragile and deceptive umbrella of not wanting to give Big Government too big a hand, let's pass local legislation, then. I'm pretty sure Connecticut, right now, would vote for some kind of change, even among the blue- and white-collar, orange-vested deer hunters. If leaders are so sure there should not be change, they should not fear a vote. That's how it goes, right? And besides, in communities across the U.S.A. already, people are handing their guns over, without any buy-back incentive. That seems to be an indicator of how some of that voting might go.
Make the NRA pay by the vote, the way politicians have come to do. Make them buy airtime and try to make the case for why, as a civilized nation, we should be armed to the teeth. Make them dip deeper into their coffers to defend their stance and existence. Let them work for the public, at the public level, to plead their case, and not do it over martini lunches inside the Beltway, in secrecy and behind closed doors, with a greasy, tainted handshake.
Make your neighbors put up yard signs, saying they support guns in the home and, potentially, in an elementary school where their own children attend and those guns could all-too-easily find their way into hallway and classroom. And make them drive the stake of those yard signs into their lawns before the last of the Newtown dead are buried.
Let's take the debate off Facebook and put it in our faces. Let's make it so that people will have to use their own energies and funds and resources to tell me why their right to keep a gun, and do it with gigantic loopholes and an alarming lack of supervision and mandatory training, is more important than the right of a third-grader to not have to hide in a closet to save his or her life, after a morning of glueing macaroni to construction paper, half an Advent calendar away from a Christmas when many of those shot in the head and chest still believed in Santa Claus.
I laugh when even my LGBT friends (yes, some of the rainbow community are packing heat and fighting on Facebook to keep the privilege, to my own astonishment) cite the Second Amendment in defense of gun ownership, even in the immediate wake of this obscene tragedy. Aren't these the same who decry the Bible as an archaic, misinterpreted document when the issue of gay rights comes up, and when outdated language is used as a weapon against them? How, then, do they defend an amendment that has the word "militia" in it? Is that not as archaic? If you ask the Bible to be put in a modern context before using it to deny gay rights, you need to cast some modern light on the Second Amendment, too.
The Ultimate Goal
The ultimate goal of a gun, it seems to me, is death -- even in protection. Even at firing ranges, the targets are shaped like deer or humans. And I'm tired of hunters having a bigger say in the debate than an elementary school teacher charged with raising our youth. The Newtown shooter left his mother's hunting rifles at home and instead took her handguns and the semiautomatics. By the way, who's hunting bucks and does with a Saturday Night Special?
In the wake of the tragedy, as they have done after the Colorado movie theater shooting and the Oak Creek temple shooting, the NRA shuttered their Facebook page and silenced their Twitter feed. (Apparently, they have a formula for how long they stay silent, based on the number of casualties. A formula.) Sometimes what people don't do or say speaks louder than what they do. We owe it to the children of Newtown, lost or saved, that this time, our collective actions will say something about what happens next.
The statistics for what happens when a gun is present in the home speak for themselves, and oddly, there are no statistics that I've seen that counter the increased odds of death, suicide or tragedy among those who tuck a gun in a bedside table "for protection." You'd think that if this were a fair fight, there'd be a counter to at least some of those facts, not just the absurd argument that "guns don't kill people," or that "cars kill people, too -- you wanna outlaw cars?" or the flash of a bumper sticker that reads, "You'll have to pry my gun from my cold, dead hand." Be careful what you wish for, I always say.
I was admonished on Facebook for "politicizing" the Newtown shooting by making the discussion immediately about gun control. "Too soon," they said. "Now is time for mourning, not blame." Didn't we say that after Columbine? After Gabby Giffords was shot? After the D.C. zoo shooting? After Aurora? After Oak Creek? We have a remarkably short memory when it comes to gun violence. Outrage fades quickly as the mundane creeps back in. I wonder how quickly the memories of their children will fade for those parents who'd already bought presents for a child who will not be alive on Christmas morning to unwrap them.
I am capable of two emotions at once. I can mourn with all my heart and, in doing so, still and simultaneously express anger over something that could have been avoided if we'd just, as a nation, had a collective and calm discussion after any one of those past events. But no. After the mourning, once caskets are lowered into damp earth, we take our sunglasses off and put our blinders back on, going about our life of denial, letting the gun lobby decide what is best for us. If we avoid the discussion this time, then we all have blood on our hands the next time. We, as a nation, will pull the next trigger.
And politicizing? How pathetic that politics and guns are the bedfellows they are. Why is that not more a source of shame?
The time for compromise is past. I used to go out of my way to say, "We're not talking about banning, just better controls in a category already legislated, already to some degree controlled." But now I think the lack of response from the NRA has made them lose their vote. Their abstention, their lack of even condolence, means that they lose their voice in the matter. When you fall silent in the moment of tragedy, you abdicate your right to steer the conversation once the tiny dead are buried.
We Owe Them a Solution
On The Katie Couric Show, the surviving 10-year-old sister of one of the murdered boys proposed a ban on semiautomatic weapons and handguns. As far as hunting, she said, let people hunt. But do it with guns borrowed at the site, then returned when a carcass is strapped triumphantly to the car hood. Her solution is naïvely brilliant. But more than whether it will or won't work, it was proposed. By a 10-year-old. Among those clinging so desperately to their guns, I've heard no such proposals, rational, far-fetched, cynical or naïve. Just silence, after the gunshots.
I lost a friend, a man struggling with his identity and demons of his own, when he walked into a Kmart, bought a hunting rifle and a box of ammo, drove to the edge of the Everglades directly from the Kmart parking lot and blew his brains out. One or 26, it is too easy.
Oddly, these thoughts and the Sandy Hook tragedy happened after a week of jury duty, where every day I had to arrive an hour early to empty my pockets, remove my belt and walk through a metal detector. Even if the NRA proposed that metal detectors be set up at every grade school, university, church theater and public space, I'd have some respect. But I suspect that they realize that the outcry would be too great, screams and protests going up soundly about our "civil liberties." I suspect that they also fear that any statement would admit complicity in the deaths of the young of Newtown.
The losses are just too great, and now too frequent, not to effect change. Anyone who suggests that the system is fine as is, and that these acts are mere anomalies at the hands of madmen, are wrong. Dead wrong.
We track Sudafed buyers and legislate Big Gulps. It is easier to buy ammo online than it is to buy merlot from Wine.com. It is faster to get a license for a gun than it is to get a license to cut hair. We have derailed. Something is gravely wrong. We owe the lost of Newtown, teacher and student, son and daughter, a fix, a solution, an answer.
We owe it to that boy who never wanted anyone to sit alone at lunchtime.
This piece originally appeared on The Bilerico Project.
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